Time has passed since Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) last ventured into Narnia. They are still stuck in England, this time with their nasty cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter), while their siblings Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) have left for America. Out of nowhere, Lucy, Edmund and Eustace are swept inside the painting of a ship and sent back to Narnia. They are rescued from the ocean by Caspian (Ben Barnes), who invites them onboard his sailing ship, the Dawn Treader. It's manned by pirates and talking animals, including a sword fighting rat named Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg). Caspian describes how Narnia has been at peace for many years now but he insists on investigating the disappearance of the seven lords. After being attacked by slave traders and seeing some of their friends disappear amidst a smoky green spirit, Caspian, Edmund and Lucky must find the seven swords of the lords to break the curse of Dark Island.
Taking over from Andrew Adamson, who worked on the first two Narnia films, is director Michael Apted who has made a more accessible but less sophisticated adventure film than his predecessor. The tone of the film is lighter in a visual and thematic sense. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which was filmed on location in New Zealand and the Gold Coast, spends much of its time on beautiful open waters and coastal villages, saturated with bright sunlight and gold sandstone. The Dawn Treader itself is a magnificent vessel, shaped like the arching back of a sea serpent and powered by an enormous purple sail. The film maintains a warmer look and tone but it also lacks the first film's intensity, with its strikingly cold and isolated colour palette. It is still a supremely attractive film, but in no part due to the 3D technology either. Only a few scenes appear to have visibly added depth and there would be little missed in viewing the film without the glasses. Interestingly, it's also a much shorter film than the other entries, running under two hours and padded with endless panning aerial shots of the Dawn Treader.
The most problematic omission from the film's narrative are the characters Peter and Susan. They only appear in a single fantasy sequence. The first Narnia film was strengthened by not only its religious symbolism but its allegory of family values in a wartime context. Though the screenplay here is credited to three writers, it's clear that there's a lot less of this and that any ideas relating to image and individuality run second to the action. Lucy has grown up significantly and is therefore more concerned about her looks, wanting to be more physically like Susan. Edmund also has brief exchanges with Caspian about who is really leading the ship. These transparent ideas are driven through uninspired dialogue. Lines such as "to defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself" might be true to the novel but have matured poorly. Georgie Henley is at least the sweetest of the children, but there a few fairly thankless side characters, like Gary Sweet with a pirate growl, who is given little to work with. When he is asked what's out in the dark, he snarls back: "Pure evil". The action, of which there is plenty, is at least dynamic and competently staged. The most elaborate sequence is a climactic battle involving a giant sea monster, looking to crush the ship.
Final Word? Children will probably relish the visual wizardry in sequences like this, but their parents will be less engaged by film's familiarity. But still don't miss this one.